Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Everest & Conquest in the Himalaya, by Sale & Rodway

Richard Sale and George Rodway write a history of Himalayan climbing with a focus on its connection to the development of high altitude physiology in Everest & Conquest in the Himalaya: Science and Courage on the World's Highest Mountain. The authors argue that is was more the development of high-altitude science that helped climbers scale the last 1000 feet of Everest's height rather than the will power or great abilities of its first climbers. They trace the growth of climbing science, from the earliest experiments at altitude to Kellas' scientific explorations, to the work of Pugh and Ward, to the recent (2007) Caudwell Xtreme Everest Expedition. They show that early climbers (even as late as 1952) were not held back by a lack of effort, or even their older clothing, but rather their lack of understanding of what they were up against. Sale and Rodway argue that it was the development of an efficient oxygen system along with Pugh's intensive research regarding proper oxygen use, diet, and hydration that got two men to the summit of Everest in 1953 (a point made earlier by Michael Ward in Everest: A Thousand Years of Exploration). What's new is the authors' continuation of the history of high altitude experimentation, including Italian research that argued against Kellas' belief that man could reach the summit without oxygen, the Silver Hut experiment, West's 1981 scientific climb of Everest, and some early results from the 2007 Caudwell Xtreme climb.

Alongside the science, they provide a pretty good, concise history of Himalayan climbing, with a serious focus on Everest. They give some early credit to Kellas (see also Mitchell and Rodway's Prelude to Everest) for his climbs and his scientific studies that provided early evidence that people should be just able to reach the summit of Everest without supplementary oxygen. The credit Hermann Buhl and Diemberger with reaching the summit of an 8000-er for the first time (Broad Peak) in the best style, and note that others on their team later made the first alpine-style ascent of a Himalayan peak. They note just about every climb on Everest up to 1978. They show the irony that Messner's two biggest critics of his gas-free ascent of Everest (the Sherpas who accompanied to the South Col on his first attempt), were among the next climbers, along with Hans Engl, to make the climb gas-free. The authors assume their readers have some previous knowledge of Everest's history, as they gloss over some of the most well-known details, such as the 1953 ascent and the 1996 disaster. They comment on the modern trend of commercial climbing, including a critique of Sale's experience on an early commercial climb, without getting especially negative. Overall, it's a great read with intelligent commentary. I think you'll like it!

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